Portuguese Workers/Birth of Cleaners’ Action 1975

The Portuguese Cleaners’ Strike

This interview focuses on CleanersAction, an advocacy group founded in 1975 to support Portuguese cleaners. Its origins are linked to a “contracting-out crisis” precipitated by the actions of the Ontario government at its Queen’s Park building-complex. That year, the Ministry of Government Services undermined an organizing drive among cleaners that led to a first union contract as Local 204 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) by cancelling its contract with the original cleaning company and signing a new contract with a different company. Forced to accept low wages to keep their jobs, the women also turned for support to community workers with St Christopher (settlement) House. CleanersAction’s assisted night cleaners with their individual problems and worked with them to address workplace challenges.

The interview features two CleanersAction activists. Influenced by sixties-era progressivism, teacher Sidney Pratt left Indianapolis for Brazil, where she applied the teachings of Paolo Freire, was a literacy activist, and participated in organizations of the international Christian left. During her Toronto years (1972-1987), she worked with the Free Interpreter Service at St Christopher (settlement) House, where she also initiated CleanersAction among other programs. As an Ontario government civil servant, she initiated English in the Workplace classes and literacy classes for immigrants. She lives in Brazil. Portuguese-born Marcie Ponte (Santa Maria) first became involved in immigrant women’s activism as a college student, initially with St. Stephen’s Community House. She was a union organizer for the International Lady Garment Workers Union and served on the Labour Council. Since 1999, she has been Executive Director of the Working Women Community Centre, a woman-focused settlement agency for newcomers. 

Pratt and Ponte discuss CleanersAction within the wider context of the 1970s and 1980s and in terms of their relationship to the immigrant women, to each other, and to other activists involved. Stories shed light on the mix of principled and pragmatic thinking that guided the literacy classes that addressed union and family issues, investigation into work conditions, and efforts to publicize the women’s cause. Includes a lively discussion about the complex relationship between immigrant women’s activism and feminism.       

with Marcie Ponte and Sidney Pratt
interviewed by Franca Iacovetta

Thank you…

This project has been made possible in part by Library and Archives Canada’s Documentary Heritage Communities Program.